Pheromones and Other Stimuli We Humans Don't Get, with E.O. Wilson

Biologist Edward O. Wilson takes us through several natural stimuli that humans don't understand yet are used by various animals to navigate and communicate within communities.

E.O. Wilson: We know less and we understand less of the world around us than any person who doesn't know the evidence can even imagine. We live entirely within a microscopic section of the stimuli that are possible and that flood in on us all the time. Let me give you an example. We think we see everything but we only see the electromagnetic radiation across almost literally relatively a microscopic section of the entire spectrum, you know, running from ultra low frequency radiation to gamma radiation, this vast array we read, we get and we can understand only a tiny, tiny fraction. We're not aware of that. Other animals in the world can read infrared and others can't see red, and some move primarily directed by ultraviolet and so on and we don't know exactly what else is out there. We know that a number of organisms use echolocation; bats are the familiar example. Others echolocate with electrical impulses. They broadcast from their bodies like electric fish and electric eels. We have no sense of that whatsoever and yet bats, for example, can maneuver with fantastic speed and accuracy just using echo locations from their own voices.

 

But that's just the beginning. We are completely ignorant or unknowing except when we discover it by instruments of the magnetic field of the earth. Birds migrate with it. Many species do.  The entire world of electrical perception. We sense electricity or electric flow only by maybe a sound that it creates or a strange sense of vibration in comfort. Other organisms use it all the time. But most important of all is that we are among the few creatures in the world that live in a primarily audio/visual world. Birds are another example. That's why we love them so perhaps, part of the reason we love them so because they're using the same channels we are. And humans, when you think about it, communicate and they see and they understand almost entirely with hearing and sight. We are miserable when it comes to taste and smell. And I don't care how exquisite the finest restaurants and cuisines of New York's restaurants, we still only sense a tiny fraction of what most of the animal world is sensing.

 

They live by pheromones. It means that they communicate by chemical smell and taste and they can communicate in a complex manner in this way. For example, in my work, which I began in the late '50s with natural products chemists, I and others found out that ants are communicating by pheromones and that actually they have, according to species, ten to 20 substances that they use to smell and taste in organizing their society. We have no sense of that whatsoever, you know, no way of knowing what they're doing. We just see them running around; they look like they're little particles in brownian movement or forming lines and so on. With those ten to 20 pheromones they use they can vary meaning greatly by how much of the pheromone they release. Sometimes they release it only in billionths of a gram to send a signal, by the context, I mean where it's released and in what social situation gives another meaning, and in combinations, so it's almost like sentences being formed.

 

An ant that's leaving the nest and is alarmed can release different concentrations that communicate what we would call words: pay attention, pay attention, attention, attention; come in this direction; a problem, a problem; a situation; opportunity; come. And then when it gets to a high concentration, if it's one of their alarm substances it is attack, attack, attack, anything that moves that does not have the colony smell then oh, it's a worker coming home with a rescued larva, step aside, step aside; help clean it; help clean it. It just goes on forever. But the point is that there are worlds out there from bacteria to social insects and onto the mammals, many of the mammals that are operating with pheromones and we have only the barest understanding ourselves. And we've done it through natural products, chemistry and experiments of just what all these creatures are saying to each other. We live, all the time, especially in nature, in great clouds of pheromones. They're coming out in spumes in millionths of a gram that can travel for maybe a kilometer before they attract individuals in; alarm substances; the scent of predators and the scent for the predator, of prey at extremely low levels. And since there are so many species living together in a natural system, for example, 18,000 species live together we now know in the Smoky Mountain National Park of plants and animals and bacteria and so on. We're just beginning to understand how the natural world works. And a large part of it is that it lives in another world from the one we do, the pheromone world.




Directed/Produced by Jonathan Fowler, Elizabeth Rodd, and Dillon Fitton


 

 

Biologist Edward O. Wilson takes us through several natural stimuli that humans don't understand yet are used by various animals to navigate and communicate within communities. Examples include infrared sensing, echolocation, electrical perception, and pheromones. As the world's leading expert on ants, Wilson explains how entire colonies structure their societies around the sense of smell and taste via pheromones.

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Maps show how CNN lost America to Fox News

Is this proof of a dramatic shift?

Strange Maps
  • Map details dramatic shift from CNN to Fox News over 10-year period
  • Does it show the triumph of "fake news" — or, rather, its defeat?
  • A closer look at the map's legend allows for more complex analyses

Dramatic and misleading

Image: Reddit / SICResearch

The situation today: CNN pushed back to the edges of the country.

Over the course of no more than a decade, America has radically switched favorites when it comes to cable news networks. As this sequence of maps showing TMAs (Television Market Areas) suggests, CNN is out, Fox News is in.

The maps are certainly dramatic, but also a bit misleading. They nevertheless provide some insight into the state of journalism and the public's attitudes toward the press in the US.

Let's zoom in:

  • It's 2008, on the eve of the Obama Era. CNN (blue) dominates the cable news landscape across America. Fox News (red) is an upstart (°1996) with a few regional bastions in the South.
  • By 2010, Fox News has broken out of its southern heartland, colonizing markets in the Midwest and the Northwest — and even northern Maine and southern Alaska.
  • Two years later, Fox News has lost those two outliers, but has filled up in the middle: it now boasts two large, contiguous blocks in the southeast and northwest, almost touching.
  • In 2014, Fox News seems past its prime. The northwestern block has shrunk, the southeastern one has fragmented.
  • Energised by Trump's 2016 presidential campaign, Fox News is back with a vengeance. Not only have Maine and Alaska gone from entirely blue to entirely red, so has most of the rest of the U.S. Fox News has plugged the Nebraska Gap: it's no longer possible to walk from coast to coast across CNN territory.
  • By 2018, the fortunes from a decade earlier have almost reversed. Fox News rules the roost. CNN clings on to the Pacific Coast, New Mexico, Minnesota and parts of the Northeast — plus a smattering of metropolitan areas in the South and Midwest.

"Frightening map"

Image source: Reddit / SICResearch

This sequence of maps, showing America turning from blue to red, elicited strong reactions on the Reddit forum where it was published last week. For some, the takeover by Fox News illustrates the demise of all that's good and fair about news journalism. Among the comments?

  • "The end is near."
  • "The idiocracy grows."
  • "(It's) like a spreading disease."
  • "One of the more frightening maps I've seen."
For others, the maps are less about the rise of Fox News, and more about CNN's self-inflicted downward spiral:
  • "LOL that's what happens when you're fake news!"
  • "CNN went down the toilet on quality."
  • "A Minecraft YouTuber could beat CNN's numbers."
  • "CNN has become more like a high-school production of a news show."

Not a few find fault with both channels, even if not always to the same degree:

  • "That anybody considers either of those networks good news sources is troubling."
  • "Both leave you understanding less rather than more."
  • "This is what happens when you spout bullsh-- for two years straight. People find an alternative — even if it's just different bullsh--."
  • "CNN is sh-- but it's nowhere close to the outright bullsh-- and baseless propaganda Fox News spews."

"Old people learning to Google"

Image: Google Trends

CNN vs. Fox News search terms (200!-2018)

But what do the maps actually show? Created by SICResearch, they do show a huge evolution, but not of both cable news networks' audience size (i.e. Nielsen ratings). The dramatic shift is one in Google search trends. In other words, it shows how often people type in "CNN" or "Fox News" when surfing the web. And that does not necessarily reflect the relative popularity of both networks. As some commenters suggest:

  • "I can't remember the last time that I've searched for a news channel on Google. Is it really that difficult for people to type 'cnn.com'?"
  • "More than anything else, these maps show smart phone proliferation (among older people) more than anything else."
  • "This is a map of how old people and rural areas have learned to use Google in the last decade."
  • "This is basically a map of people who don't understand how the internet works, and it's no surprise that it leans conservative."

A visual image as strong as this map sequence looks designed to elicit a vehement response — and its lack of context offers viewers little new information to challenge their preconceptions. Like the news itself, cartography pretends to be objective, but always has an agenda of its own, even if just by the selection of its topics.

The trick is not to despair of maps (or news) but to get a good sense of the parameters that are in play. And, as is often the case (with both maps and news), what's left out is at least as significant as what's actually shown.

One important point: while Fox News is the sole major purveyor of news and opinion with a conservative/right-wing slant, CNN has more competition in the center/left part of the spectrum, notably from MSNBC.

Another: the average age of cable news viewers — whether they watch CNN or Fox News — is in the mid-60s. As a result of a shift in generational habits, TV viewing is down across the board. Younger people are more comfortable with a "cafeteria" approach to their news menu, selecting alternative and online sources for their information.

It should also be noted, however, that Fox News, according to Harvard's Nieman Lab, dominates Facebook when it comes to engagement among news outlets.

CNN, Fox and MSNBC

Image: Google Trends

CNN vs. Fox (without the 'News'; may include searches for actual foxes). See MSNBC (in yellow) for comparison

For the record, here are the Nielsen ratings for average daily viewer total for the three main cable news networks, for 2018 (compared to 2017):

  • Fox News: 1,425,000 (-5%)
  • MSNBC: 994,000 (+12%)
  • CNN: 706,000 (-9%)

And according to this recent overview, the top 50 of the most popular websites in the U.S. includes cnn.com in 28th place, and foxnews.com in... 27th place.

The top 5, in descending order, consists of google.com, youtube.com, facebook.com, amazon.com and yahoo.com — the latter being the highest-placed website in the News and Media category.
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